clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, July 17, 2003
we all dance to things we disagree with
A Salon writer, Kate Haulman, just works herself into an absolute tizzy about the Willie Nelson / Toby Keith song "Beer For My Horses":

Still, catchy tune and pseudo-feminist video aside, the song offends my lefty sensibilities on virtually every level. But what do you do when you like something -- be it a painting, song, film or fashion -- but reject all that the thing signifies? Can music or art or dress speak to a person or be appreciated in a contentless manner?...Can you embrace something without endorsing its intended meaning? Culture is politics and vice versa, but what does that mean on a case-by-case basis?

Until I divine the specific relationship between the two I must be content to A) enjoy the song as guilty pleasure when it crosses my path; B) refuse to financially support the enterprise by purchasing the CD or patronizing advertisers on stations that play the song; and C) appropriate it.

That last, I think, is crucial if one hopes to drain powerful cultural forms of their totalizing political punch. It's an age-old American strategy, dating from the days when Continental soldiers lifted "Yankee Doodle" from the mouths of mocking British troops, stealing some of their cultural, and perhaps military, thunder. Appropriation was also at work when slaves made the heaven in Methodist hymns into a specific vision of freedom from bondage. Republicans attempted a watered-down version of it when they chose Sting's "Brand New Day" as the theme song for their 2000 convention. They even got to play it once or twice before he pulled the plug.

Well, there's at least two big red flags here: "guilty pleasure" and "appropriate." (I am seriously getting pissed off just typing the words, and yes, I know this is not a good sign.) The idea of guilty pleasure is a stupid, Catholic, one, but so, I often feel, is loudly declaring that you don't have guilty pleasures. Because, let's face it, you probably do. Mine include Tori Amos and Eurovision-y europop, mainly because I don't know anyone else with decent musical taste who non-guiltily likes these things. (I still listen to 'em, though.) The problem with the concept of the guilty pleasure is less the "guilty" part and more what's defined as a guilty pleasure. The term is used by people with "good taste" to describe anything mainstream which they, horror of horrors, like. But this presumes that anything mainstream is bad, or falls within "bad taste," and I think that's just not true. Just because something is liked by a lot of other people, or not liked by the Wire, doesn't make it a guilty pleasure. The point of guilty pleasures is that you just like them, they're pure pleasure, and you don't think about it too much (viz. the above strategy of listening to the song without thinking about the horrendously politically incorrect lyrics). But there's lots of pop stuff that you should think about, that is well-crafted and interesting and wonderful.

So what should we call a guilty pleasure? ("GP" for short.) Well, GPs are fun in their own special way--aside from the "no thinking" part, you enjoy GPs alone. There's no one else you know and respect who will admit to liking it, so you have to do it "in secret," and this has a certain adulterous excitement that makes it, well, pleasurable. That's why "guilty" pleasure--because guilt can be pleasurable, too. All the lapsed Catholics (or the male submissives wearing panties and garters) will tell you that. But it's different from a regular pleasure, and that's why I don't think this song should be (or is) a guilty pleasure--it's not being enjoyed alone. With a GP, you enjoy it by keeping it to yourself, your own little discovery among the trash; with a regular pleasure, you want to share it with everyone else (i.e. pop's inclusivity), and that's clearly what the author's doing here, despite the hissy fit.

Let's get down to the object at hand, then. The author asks of the song: "Can you embrace something without endorsing its intended meaning?" Well good Lord, Kate, what school of critical discourse was your ass into at college? Because most of the ones I dug my paws into didn't give two shits about intentionality, and if it didn't matter for fugging Twain then it doesn't matter for fugging Toby Keith. Who cares if he meant it as a call to kill Iraqi children or not? If it's catchy, it's catchy, and you can use it. Moreover, don't be so quick to dismiss Willie: I can easily imagine him smoking a bowl and giggling his ass off about the way this is probably being taken. This is, after all, the man who sent a case of whiskey to the Texas Democrats who broke a quorum by going to Oklahoma, so maybe--just maybe--by justice he's talking about something different than Keith is, and by "Somebody stole a car / Somebody got away / Somebody didn't get too far yeah" he's not thinking about criminals, but Republicans.

The song mainly "offends my lefty sensibilities on virtually every level" not because it's a vigilante revenge fantasy, but because it's a vigilante revenge fantasy set in Texas. If this was a samurai vigilante, or Shaft, or Robin Hood, or anything else, would we have such a problem? Nope. So set it in feudal Japan if you'd like, and if it'll make you feel better. But don't let your leftist squeamishness about horses and gunsmoke and all that bullshit prevent you from enjoying the song, OK? Christ--I mean, look at what she's going on about here:

In message, the song amounts to masculinist, parochial-cum-nationalist, evangelical eye-for-an-eye, pro-death penalty drivel devoid of social context, lacking any awareness of the systems and structures that induce people to commit crimes on a local level or that make the world look as it does today. It's nauseating.

Oh, please, Kate. If you don't see it there, you're just not looking. And besides, it is, as she says, "catchy"--and that line about "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses" is a really lovely turn of phrase.

What's really interesting to me about the Keith song that I think gets Kate in a particular tizzy, the real one she's writing about here--Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American), which seems to equate war in Iraq with retribution for 9/11, erroneously--is not that people like it, since, after all, Bush does still have a pretty good approval rating. No, it's interesting to me that no one's written and released a response song. Because that is the difference between sarcasm and sincerity, between true discourse and masturbatory "appropriation." It would be an actual political act instead of one that's funny, but not comedy.

What's the point of appropriation, of doing that instead of responding? Why would you need to appropriate something when you can ignore the intention and interpret it however you want? I think we do it to preserve another guilty pleasure, a far more dangerous one: the left's desire to wrap itself in a blanket of presumed powerlessness. So much of our moral authority springs from this position of being oppressed that we don't know how to deal with power, avoid it, and pretend as if we're helpless even when we're not, and lionizing appropriation / subversion is one of the horrible results of this.

The theory would go, I guess, that no one wrote a response song because no one would hear it because the media and mainstream is dominated by the conservatives, etc. But that's stupid. Just as country music is reflexively conservative, so is rock pretty liberal, by and large, and the ideas you could express in such a response song have become fairly mainstream now. Remember that 50% of the country still is Democrat. So why no response song? Because it would have to be, like the Keith song, catchy, and I don't think anyone who could write a coherant response song would also be willing to make this "sacrafice" to catchiness. But pop is no sin; sure, patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but a good melody is a seldom-used way to convey an idea. But no luck, and now we're locked into a horrible cycle: the left embraces subversion because it thinks it can't break into the mainstream, but it can't break into the mainstream because it thinks doing so would be a sell-out, a betrayal of their subversive position. Wouldn't it be better for us to be active participants there, though? Why be subversive when you can actually engage in dialogue? Wasn't that what was so cool about "Sweet Home Alabama"? (The song, not the movie.)

That's the problem with conflating culture and politics, as Kate does: one is a thing, and one is a process. So there can be politics in art just as there can be politics in government. (Don't forget that a lot of government isn't politics; paving roads and transporting mail and like that isn't political at all.) And politics is, at its heart, discourse--a discourse between presumed equals, even if the participants are not, in fact, equal, and that is the beauty of politics, its equality of word. So you want to be political? Great. Respond. Reply. Reinterpret. But don't subvert unless you think it would actually do some good--and most of the time, it doesn't.